GameLoop: Writing For Cultures That Aren’t Yours

This past weekend, I attended Boston GameLoop, an annual game development unconference. I’ve been going for years, and I’m always impressed by the sheer wealth of knowledge available.

I take notes. Lots of notes. And I’m going to be writing up my notes from this year (in fleshed-out form) over the next few posts.

GameLoop participants: Apart from the discussion leaders, I have not attached anyone’s names to these writeups, and I’ve mostly scrubbed personal anecdotes out to maintain the privacy of attendees. Please contact me (carolyn at if:

  • I included something you said that should not be included, or
  • I quoted you without attributing (when you would prefer attribution), or
  • You think I got something from the discussion wrong

…and I’ll make a correction. Thanks!

Writing for cultures that aren’t yours

Discussion leader: Khadeja Merenkov

Blue text on whiteboard

Our whiteboard notes. There’s a transcribed version at the end of this post.

Other cultures should not be represented in “white person” ways. Cherry-picking your favorite aspects of a culture and representing it as “this is what the culture is” is not okay. It’s important to show the entirety of a culture, not just the sexy parts.

But this doesn’t mean the authorial voice has to be subsumed, even if the author is not from the culture involved. It just means that people who have some connection to that culture need to be involved, to make sure it’s done right. (These are cultural consultants.)

Examples of getting this right:

A major problem with maintaining diversity of characters in AAA video game development: by the time anyone calls out lack of diversity in a game, a lot of work has already been done, and then there’s intense resistance to doing anything about it. Creative directors don’t want to redo work that they think is okay, because work is expensive and redoing work is more expensive.

Publishers don’t care about diversity. They care about selling points, because that’s their job. A selling point is what causes people to buy a game.

  • Great mechanics are a selling point.
  • Great visuals are a selling point.

Diversity is not a selling point – It’s a value add. If people bought games because they were diverse, then it would be a selling point. If people buy diverse games, then publishers will want to make diverse games.

Effectively, the structure of AAA and the publishing industry are anti-diversity. Also, story is not (generally) an industry priority – it’s what wraps around a game, rather than the essence of the game itself. This also interferes with diversity-as-important.

About money and diversity:

If an AAA studio were composed of people who cared about diversity, from bottom to top, then someone would call out lack of diversity at the very beginning, and there would be no course-correction involved.

  • If the game is diverse from the beginning, then it is likely to be diverse when it ships (because changing it to make it non-diverse would require spending money).
  • If the game is not diverse from the beginning, then it is unlikely to be diverse when it ships (because changing it to make it diverse would require spending money).

Exacerbating this problem: When there are more minorities in a studio, then people in that studio are more likely to see a problem when there’s no minority representation. But AAA studios are primarily composed of nonminorities who hire nonminorities.

Hiring cultural consultants is a good way to get a culture right instead of accidentally including just the “sexy” parts of a culture. But it’s not enough to hire consultants if you don’t listen to what they have to say.

“Write what you know” doesn’t mean “Only write what you know”. It means “Increase your body of knowledge and then write from that increased knowledge”. Insist on knowing more! Approach the world (and people unlike you) with curiosity and open minds.

People are scared of screwing up, so they play it safe and cater to the majority instead of including diversity. Don’t play it safe. Do the best job you can, and take whatever criticism you receive as a way to do a better job the next time.

It’s easy to shut down when questioned or criticized, especially on cultural matters. Don’t do it! Listen to criticism and judge the criticism on its merits.

Remember that criticism of a group is not necessarily criticism of you. Even if you’re in the group.

Meetups and conferences are a great place to meet people who are unlike you.

Some people are afraid of asking for criticism on cultural matters because “people are so angry”. But the anger comes after mistakes are made. If you ask before making the mistake, this reduces anger dramatically. People want to help!

Another important way to defuse anger: make it clear that you are offering to pay for cultural consultation. If you come to someone and say “I will pay you $150 if you will please help me see where I am screwing up in my representation of your culture” this will generally go over very well. People like money.

If you don’t have money right now, offer a percentage on game sales, or ask for credit until you can pay from game sales, or offer your services in barter. Any of these might work. But don’t expect help for free.

The hard question: People of color need jobs. Some of them are writers. Would it be more ethical/practical for people from various cultures to write about those cultures, rather than those cultures being written by people not from those cultures?

Including diversity is good. Cultural appropriation is bad. Messages about what it it means to be part of a culture should come from people who are part of that culture.

Recognizing the difference:

  • Telling a story that includes people from a culture other than yours: This is including diversity.
  • Telling a story about a culture other than yours: This is cultural appropriation.


  • It would be good if there were more Muslim characters in video games.
  • It would be bad if a non-Muslim attempted to make a video game about being Muslim.

The message of cultural appropriation is: “I don’t understand you, and I don’t care to understand you.” That’s awful. Don’t do that.

At the end of this talk, we put together a list of advice for people and studios trying to write diverse characters. The whiteboard photo is at the top of this post, but I’ve written it out below, with a few clarifying notes in italics.

  • Avoid “my black friend said” – diversity within minority <– not a hive mind!
  • Multiple passes through multiple people
  • Ensure consultants are aware of current issues
  • Consenting consultants – don’t coerce people! (No one is required to help you; you should never make anyone – friends, colleagues, etc – feel as if they are)
  • Don’t steal other people’s lived experiences
  • You are responsible for how your work appears (If you shipped a game with problematic cultural stuff, that’s on you, not your consultants)
  • “Should I be writing this story?” (Avoid cultural appropriation)
  • Own and fix your mistakes
  • Include people on all levels in diversity awareness/conversations
  • Minor NPCs risk being cut – if the minorities are all minor NPCs, they could all be cut
  • Audiences are changed through marketing
    • Audiences can relate to people unlike them
    • (we ask minorities to do this already!)
  • Don’t reskin the white guy as brown and call that enough
  • Don’t make your default the white guy
    • Lots of people use defaults! (This refers to default appearances in systems with character creation)
  • Don’t use metaphorical analogues for “the other”
  • It’s not an achievement – IT’S A PROCESS


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  1. Thanks so much for taking notes and posting this. Was there any discussion on where to go to look for consultants, and how to vet them?

    I am going to need consultants at some point, and I’d like to look outside the community, but I’m not sure the ideas that I have are the best (finding bloggers, forums, etc.) In some cases, there are groups dedicated to helping writers to do better, but not always.

    • There wasn’t in-depth discussion on that topic – just broad recommendations. Here’s what I remember.

      If you’re in the majority, try to make friends and connections who are in the minority. Meetups and events are great for this – Twitter is very useful, too. If you know people who aren’t like you (in whatever minority context you’re considering) then they may be able to help you, or to direct you to people who can help you. (This is also where the point about “don’t coerce people” came up – it’s good to have connections, it’s bad to be manipulative.)

      Who is writing diversity-based criticism about works in your medium? If there are no people of color, no queer people, no people with disabilities, no variation in body type, which people will point that out? These people will likely be qualified for the work you need (if they’re coming from within the culture you need, rather than making observations from the outside) and if not, they can probably point you in the direction of the right people.

    • Hi! I was at the discussion (I pitched it at GameLoop) and I do have some more suggestions of where to look for consultants!
      First of all, educational institutions are amazing resources. Within places like schools, colleges, and universities, you have student groups that are based on identity groups and they are bursting with resources and connections. Think, for example, about a school’s Women’s Resource Center and how they might have statistics, books, and members willing to meet with a dev team – believe me, they probably would! It’s a great opportunity for them, AND for you. It’s empowering on both ends, especially if there is some means of compensation (they get to play/playtest the game, you can sponsor an event, you can give them a donation, etc.).

      Another thing educational institutions can offer are professors. With smaller colleges, and even the larger ones, when the professors aren’t as busy, it isn’t too hard to find a professor’s contact information. Get involved especially with sociology/anthropology departments – they study culture and society and can get you access not only to their own minds, but to perhaps the minds of their brightest consenting students. ALWAYS make sure that their students are consenting! Again, compensation should always be considered.

      My last note about schools/colleges/universities is to always look at event schedules – there are tons of events open to the public such as documentary screenings, talks, round tables, etc. that could really help you connect with people – and they are usually free :) Take advantage!

      Another venue that is similar are museums – you may not get up close and personal with the museum curator, but looking at their event calendar might also surprise you. Even looking at art from the culture of interest will open your eyes to issues you may not have thought of, and it’ll give you a jumping-off point when you do the research or start to speak to individuals. After all, art reflects the society it comes from!

      I hope this helps :)

      • I Do Not Have The Energy to help you deal with this, but wish to express my support and appreciation for your having tried to Educate.

  2. “Messages about what it it means to be part of a culture should come from people who are part of that culture.”

    Surely, this claim cannot be true. If we restrict the right to say anything about the meaning of a culture to those who are part of that culture, we turn cultures into isolated islands of meaning, inaccessible to people from other islands. But cultures are not and cannot be isolated islands of meaning; indeed, the only way to assess the meaning of any culture is to compare it to other cultures. Nothing that is isolated has meaning. But that means that anyone who makes any claim about the meaning of any culture is automatically also making claims about the meaning of other cultures. And that is good. We don’t need isolation and angst of the “o my god I can never really understand these people because cultures are incommensurable”-kind; we need conversation, cross-fertilization and cross-cultural criticism.

    • Victor, there’s a world of difference between “What does it mean to be [X]” and “What does [X] mean from an anthropological standpoint” and I can’t help but wonder which article you read that you’re conflating them here.

      • Caelyn, I’m afraid I don’t fully understand your criticism. I’m not invoking an anthropological standpoint, and I don’t believe anyone else is. I hope the comments I’ll post below will serve to clarify what I meant.

        • I’m afraid they don’t, but having read your other responses I’m not really interested in having this debate with you. Do what you will and be aware of likely reactions to it.

    • I don’t agree with you.

      To stand outside a culture and attempt to explain the meaning and experience of that culture is in essence to say, “I understand what it means to be part of [culture X] more than anyone else speaking on this topic.”

      This is fine in a case like ancient Rome, where no one is speaking from the viewpoint of that culture, or perhaps other extremely isolated present-day cultures on earth, where again, no one is speaking from the viewpoint of that culture (though I would treat any present-day situation with extreme caution.)


      Muslims are the best authority on what it means to be Muslim.
      Black people are the best authority on what it means to be Black.
      Jews are the best authority on what it means to be Jewish.
      …and so on.

      There are people from ALL of those cultures speaking about what it means to be from those cultures. As well as almost every culture on earth.

      Why should Muslims tolerate non-Muslims telling them what it means to be Muslim?
      Why should Black people tolerate white people telling them what it means to be Black?
      Why should Jews tolerate non-Jews telling them what it means to be Jewish?

      And why on earth would or should anyone listen to them, when
      …there are Muslims talking about what it means to be Muslim?
      …there are Black people talking about what it means to be Black?
      …there are Jews talking about what it means to be Jewish?

      Now, to be clear – I do think there’s room for cultural criticism and commentary. There are places in the world where some terrible things are happening, and while they may be part of the existing culture for that part of the world, that doesn’t make them okay. (Child prostitution, for example.)

      But it’s one thing to say “Here is a thing that is happening, and there are problems with it, and here is why there are problems.” It’s another entirely to say “Here is what it means to be from that culture.”

      • On the surface, we seem to disagree, Carolyn, but I do wonder how much disagreement remains once we look beneath that surface. To start with a point of agreement: I completely agree with you that it would be arrogant and even blind for someone outside a culture X to claim that he or she “understands what it means to be part of [culture X] more than anyone else speaking on this topic.” But — and I wonder you would still agree with me on that — it is also arrogant and blind for anyone inside that culture to say so. (Think about the kind of conservative who claims to have the best knowledge about what it means to be American / Russian / Dutch / etc.) In fact, I take it that the idea that one’s own voice is the most authoritative voice on any topic is a very dangerous one, as it tends to make one blind to one’s own inevitable shortcomings.

        So when I’m talking about people making claims about the meaning of a culture, I am not talking about people who believe that they know better than anyone else what the meaning of that culture is. I’m talking about people who elucidate the meaning of a culture in the only way that we could ever elucidate the meaning of something so complex: in a piecemeal way, knowing full well that one’s descriptions are both partial and subject to change. When do those descriptions change? When we learn about people’s descriptions and see that our own were indeed incomplete, perhaps mistaken, and certainly nowhere complex enough to equal the reality we were trying to describe.

        Elucidating the meaning of anything, cultures included, is necessarily a conversation. Different voices need to be heard, but, what’s more, since all of them will be partial and incomplete and sometimes mistaken, those voices need to hear each other and change what they say based on what they hear. Obviously, that doesn’t mean that you uncritically accept whatever anyone is saying about a culture. But it does mean that you have to be open to new points of view and willing to change your own descriptions when that seems called for.

        Now the question upon which we seemingly disagree is the question which voices should be part of that conversation. According to the point of view you defend, only people from inside a culture can make a contribution to the conversation about the meaning of that culture. Only Muslims can talk about the meaning of being Muslim; only men about the meaning of being men; only transgenders about the meaning of being transgender; and so on. According to the point of view I defend, elucidating the meaning of any culture will benefit from involving people from outside that culture into the conversation. Obviously, it might not benefit from listening to just anyone (the meaning of being an illegal Mexican immigrant in the U.S. is probably not elucidated very much by inviting Donald Trump to join the conversation), but the voices of thoughtful outsiders can be extremely helpful. Not only can they make sure that the conversation doesn’t get stuck in an echo chamber where there’s nothing but the repetition of convenient but shallow interpretations; but it also seems to me a fundamental fact about meaning that it only exists by grace of differences. It is only because we can conceive of alternatives to being Muslim that being Muslim means anything at all; and to understand those alternatives, and to understand what the real differences between X and its alternatives are, it is necessary to converse with those who live those alternatives. We can only understand the meaning of our own culture by talking to people who do not share it; by coming to know their perspectives on us; and by continuing that conversation as we both learn to understand each other and ourselves better.

        So when you ask why Muslims should tolerate non-Muslims telling them what it means to be Muslim, my reaction is that they should not tolerate it, they should actively invite it. As long as the people doing the telling are also willing to listen, of course, so that a conversation can happen. When you say that Muslims are the best authority on what it means to be Muslim, I agree, but I then go on to stress that Muslisms are necessarily — like everyone — still imperfect authorities whose understanding of being Muslim will be improved by talking to others, by coming to know their views, and by undoubtedly making some changes to their own self-understanding.

        I have learned a lot from non-Dutch people who had lived in the Netherlands and then told me about their views of Dutch culture. Their descriptions of that culture were not necessarily better or more accurate than mine; and in many things I was much more of an authority than they were. But I learned something from it, and I had to change my self-description, even if only in minor ways.

        So to come back to the initial point. Obviously, we don’t disagree about it being bad to barge in and claim that you understand people better than they understand themselves. But where we seem to disagree — if we do disagree — is that your proposed solution to this problem (the “colonial problem”) is to put people inside a culture on a hermeneutic pedestal where they have supreme authority; whereas my proposed solution is to encourage a conversation among all involved to increase the understanding of all involved. Perhaps I have misunderstood you. Perhaps we agree after all. But I hope this post makes it more clear where I’m coming from.

        • I want to say first that I really appreciate the courtesy with which you’re approaching this topic. This is a topic where people have really strong opinions (including us, clearly!) and I’m glad that we can disagree respectfully.

          I think we’re not as far off each other’s opinions as it might seem. But I also think we’re not talking about the same thing.

          An analogy:

          There exists a physical house. You walk inside the house and look around all the rooms. Perhaps you take notes or take pictures along the way.

          I walk around the edge of the property line, but never set foot on the property itself. I may have my own notes or pictures, but they’re all of the outside of the house.

          Now we call each other up on the phone. You’re still inside the house. I’m still outside the house.

          You can tell me what the inside of the house looks like. You can send me your photos or your notes.

          I can tell you what the outside of the house looks like. I can send you my photos or my notes.

          If I follow what you’re saying about culture –

          Your assertion is that, if we look at your notes AND my notes, we can get a better idea of the holistic concept of “What is a house? What is this house, specifically?”

          I don’t disagree with that.

          My assertion is that, no matter how much time I spend walking around the outside of the house and listening to you, I will never understand what it means to be inside the house as well as you do. And if one of us is going to walk away and tell other people, “This is what the inside of the house is like,” then it should be the person who has actually been inside the house.

          • Seems we agree on everything except, perhaps, the very last part. There I’d say that the person who has been inside the house could still learn more about the meaning of what’s inside the house by soliciting other people’s ideas and opinions. But perhaps you agree with that as well?

            It seems that some confusion has come from the fact that I didn’t stress, in my original post, that the person inside a culture is generally going to be in a much better position than anyone else to make claims about it. I consider that to be pretty obvious and hardly needing comment, but I was evidently not aware enough of the context in which this discussion was being held.

            And I’m also happy that we can have a courteous discussion. It would be a bit self-defeating for me to advocate dialogue and conversation and then come out with guns blazing. ;-)

          • Seems we agree on everything except, perhaps, the very last part. There I’d say that the person who has been inside the house could still learn more about the meaning of what’s inside the house by soliciting other people’s ideas and opinions. But perhaps you agree with that as well?

            On that point, I strongly disagree.

            A huge amount of harm has been done by people outside houses asserting control over people inside houses and overruling their voices about their own experience, as Khadeja pointed out.

            Are there edge cases? I suppose there could be. There are for most things. But if they exist, they’re so far and few between as to not be worth mentioning, let alone advocating for.

          • I don’t really understand where our point of disagreement is, since I haven’t been advocating either “asserting control over” or “overruling” anyone. That, indeed, would seem harmful. But maybe we should leave it here and perhaps, at some future moment, we’ll return to the topic in another context and understand each other better. :-)

    • Victor – I’m Khadeja, the woman who pitched and somewhat directed the flow of conversation at this discussion. I am a woman of colour, who is also Muslim, who is also fat, who is also queer, who is also a foreigner to the country I am in right now (the USA) – although I hold a passport. Although on the surface, I seem extremely complicated, unnecessarily so even, I promise you that I am only as complex as you are, as we all are. That’s the thing, all people are insanely complex, even within the same culture. That’s what makes us so…well, beautiful.

      I find your arguments to be the same as those I have heard from so many others in my field of work. I do not know you, and I have no idea of who you are or your background, so I refuse to assume anything. However, what I read from you today reeks of privilege, a privilege of feeling like you are the norm and having “cross-cultural understanding” would be beneficial to you because there would be some kind of “learning” where everyone would “benefit” or something. You know, there’s a specific situation where this type of reasoning happened, where a people of privilege talked of “exchange” and “mutual benefit” – do you know what happened? Millions of people died. And no, not millions of privileged people. Do you know why? It was decided that “the other” people were inferior based on the qualities of the group that were deemed superior.

      Of course, you know that I’m referring to the way European colonisers thought when they took over any land – be it the Americas, India, Africa, some areas of East Asia…oh, boy, there were plenty of places where they touted a need for “comparison” all the time. “We can learn from them” was really “we can take from them” and “we can let them into our fold” meant “having them be like us makes them more tolerable” – because their way was best. Make no mistake.

      I know, I know – who the HELL do I think I am, accusing you of colonialism and murder? Well…now you know what you sound like. I’m not kidding. What you say is reminiscent of ugly, ugly times, which are obivously still not over if those feelings still exist.

      I am REALLY not exaggerating though I know it must look that way to you. I am accusing you of a mindset that hasn’t yet been destroyed, and sure that is not your fault, but you can certainly think about the way you think (awkward phrasing, I know). It is an excuse that we have passed down from generation to generation – the excuse of being born into privilege. You may know about the concept, you might even be someone who has studied concepts of culture, racism, discrimination, and privilege – but I don’t know. I cannot assume. But whether or not you have studied it, you are truly practicing them in your post by assuming that someone of a different culture can just clinically “know” another. Carolyn said it best, but you are wrong. Saying so is not only uninformed, but insulting.

      Cultures are not “isolated islands of meaning” – and I cannot help but think that you hate the idea of that, because you cannot stand the idea of them being inaccessible. This is what I think after years of hearing painful, horrible things by people of privilege and by being a product of RECENT awful history.

      Some things are just not going to be yours, I am sorry to say. This isn’t bad, though. There are undertones here that I believe that you are unfortunately hiding – the fact that you must admit that you cannot colonise it all. But, I believe that this is based in fear, not in hatred or even anger. So I am here to tell you that things that are inaccessible to you are not scary, but worth your time, and it is fine if you can never “know” them.

      I’d like to leave you with some resources. Please read Strauss & Quinn’s theory of culture to get a solid foundation of how cultures are formed in the human brain. They are ENTIRELY individual and based on learned experience as well as societal histories, and geographical location. Their explanation is better than mine and I am sure that one you read their theory, which is very well-written, you’ll be sold.

      Another person to read is Lila Abu-Lughod. Just look her up, you will be impressed. She’s quite the lady, and her pieces on culture have challenged thoughts like yours better than I ever could.

      It would also behoove you to read the Xenogenesis Trilogy by Octavia Butler. I know it’s weird to suggest fiction at a time like this, but…trust me!

      Lastly, please take into consideration what Caelyn and Carolyn have said. They, just like me, are trying to help you, because your way of thinking is outdated and unhelpful to people like them, and like me, and like countless others who would like their own stories to be represented in this industry. Do not repeat history as you are in danger of doing, which I know you do not wish to do – otherwise, why be a part of this discussion?

      Do better. Everyone can, especially someone who is willing to put their thoughts out there on the internet.

      • Dear Khadeja, your post warrants a serious reply, and since its past midnight where I live, I’ll have to postpone that until tomorrow.

      • Khadeja — what really confuses me about your post is that on the one hand you tell me that the seven sentences I have written above reveal me as the mouthpiece of colonialism and as someone who is driven by hate and fear; while on the other hand, your very post is based on an agreement with what I say. I’ll try to explain that below. But it leaves me with the feeling that something went horribly wrong during our communication; that what I wanted to say and what you read me as saying were two very different things.

        The point I was trying to make — and I have tried to expound it in more detail and hopefully more lucidity in my reply to Carolyn — is that nobody has perfect understanding of themselves, and that everyone’s self-understanding can be improved by hearing what other people’s interpretations of us are. In the case of individuals, I think very few people would deny this. I cannot come to a perfect self-understanding without talking to other people, and that includes having conversations — in whatever sense — that cue me in on how other people look at and interpret me. Some of those interpretations may turn out to be shallow and only worthy of rejection; but many will contain grains of insight that I would have never had by myself, or they consider aspects of me that I had never before thought about. To deny this would be to claim that one’s own judgements about oneself are so much superior to those of all others, that the only person who has any right to interpret me is myself. That is a very strong claim. And it obviously not a claim you agree with, since you spend your entire post developing an interpretation of me and trying to convince me that my own self-understanding is defective. So about this point we seem to be in perfect agreement.

        The only thing I add to that is the idea that what holds for individual people also holds for cultures as a whole. The self-understanding of any culture is necessarily defective. I gave an argument for that in terms of meaning being determined by differences (this is a standard point of structuralist and postmodernist theory of meaning), but you can forget about that argument (if you prefer some other theory of meaning) and still agree with me. People do not understand themselves perfectly and cultures do not understand themselves perfectly either. Cultures, too, need to strike up conversations with others, need to learn how others interpret them, in order to better understand themselves. To deny that would be to see cultures as “isolated islands of meaning” where whatever anyone else says about them can safely be ignored.

        Here too your post makes it abundantly clear that you actually agree with me. For the entire way you look at colonialism — and it is a way with which I broadly agree — is premissed on the idea that cultures can deceive themselves about themselves. If we believed that a culture like, say, 19th century Dutch culture, had a prviliged understanding of itself that is necessarily better than anything outsiders could say about it, we would have to conclude that the Dutch were nice and reasonable people who went to the East Indies to help the locals achieve better lives. But of course you and I both believe that that was a self-deceptive interpretation; that the Dutch (like all the other colonial nations) set up a fiction so as not to be forced to understand what they were really doing and what their real motivations were. And this could only be corrected — better self-understanding could only be achieved — by slowly learning to hear (insofar as this has already happened, about which we should perhaps not be too optimistic) what other people’s (especially Indonesian) interpretations of the Dutch culture were like and by slowly learning to recognise that these contained truths that were hidden from the Dutch themselves.

        So when I read your post, I see a post written by someone who believes that she can understand at least some aspects of me better than I can understand them myself; and who believes that cultures, too, can have self-deceptive beliefs that need to be corrected from outside. (Not, I stress, because outside observers have the ‘right’ understanding, but because their understanding, partial and imperfect as it must be, can nevertheless reveal things that otherwise remain hidden.) And thus I see a post written by someone who agrees exactly with the point I was trying to make in my original post. And this is why I feel that something must have gone wrong during the communication of that point.

        As for the specific interpretations you develop of me, I have a hard time recognising myself in the picture you paint. You seem to assume that I would think a woman of colour who is also a Muslim, fat, queer and a foreigner is “extremely complicated” and even “unnecessarily complicated” — but no thought like that crossed my mind. You seem to assume that my eyes need to be opened to the fact that all people are insanely complex. But I already know that. That is one of the main reasons why I think our self-understanding can never be perfect. You seem to assume that I feel like I am the norm. While I undoubtedly have not freed myself from all egocentrism, I don’t think this portrayal of me is fair. You seem to assume that I believe people from different cultures can “clinically know” each other; but I have said nothing of the sort and I don’t believe anything of the sort. You seem to assume that I need to be told that some things are not going to be mine. But the whole point of my post is that we can’t even fully know ourselves, so that not even I am ever going to be fully mine; indeed, I claim that we need other people to understand ourselves and give meaning to ourselves, so that I’m claiming that I myself will always be partly constituted by you, by all of you, so that I could never be simply mine. You seem to assume that I have a fear of not being able to colonise everything; but if my thinking about these topics is shaped by a fear at all, it is surely the opposite fear, the fear that we can get so stuck in ourselves that whatever we look at, we will only see the reflection of our own face.

        So when you paint this picture of me, I can’t help but think that it is wildly inaccurate. When you lump me in amporhpous groups like “people of privilege”, or the even more nameless group of the many people you have met who use “the same” arguments as I do, I feel that I am not being taken seriously as an individual. I start to wonder whether you are interested in a conversation with me or only in a conversation with the supposedly typical representative of some group. When you develop an entire psychological portait of me, not in a questioning but in an apodictic tone, and when you end with the exhortation “Do better.”, I can’t help but feel that you have determined that your understanding of me is better than my own understanding of me without even waiting for my answer. In other words, I get the feeling that I am being treated in the very way that you tell me — quite rightly — not to treat people. Perhaps that is my own oversensitivity, and it is anyway only a small thing and not comparable to what people in systematic situations of exclusion, stigmatisation and repression have to endure; I am not asking for pity or accusing you of anything. But perhaps it can serve to illustrate my fundamental point. I think it is good and useful that you, coming from the outside, develop an interpretation of me and let me know what that interpretation is; and I also think that in order for that to be good and useful, we need to have an open conversation between individuals, not apodictic pronouncements about each other. If you agree with me on that, and I certainly hope so, then we agree on what I was trying to say — however imperfectly — in the first place.

        • Khadeja Merenkov

          I might have more to say later, but for now Victor – thank you for the thorough response. I know you took the time to write respectfully.

          However, there is something I do not appreciate. You kept saying that we agree. I’m not sure of that intention. I do not think that we agree. This is because of your very first message. You have a problem with what we wrote on the board to begin with: “Messages about what it means to be part of a culture should come from people who are part of that culture.” Maybe my calling out your privilege blinded you to what is most important, so perhaps you can deal with that in your own time.

          We agree that cultures are malleable. We agree that cultures change based on meeting others, and based on experiences. It is true that our eyes are opened through communication. I am not upset at this. But it ends there. My culture is still mine, yours still yours, and you still cannot be an authority on my culture. I cannot be an authority on yours either, by the way. After getting to know me, even intimately, you cannot claim to know any of my cultures to the extent that you may write based on my life, or any of my cultures, generally. To do so would be disrespectful.

          As I said, I may have more to say, but for now I refer to Carolyn’s more decisive explanations. I did not want to leave you without a response for too long, but I cannot spend as much time devising a response as I would like today.

  3. I’m curious what audience this panel was intended for. Independent developers can’t afford to hire a ‘cultural consultant’ (indies can’t afford to hire anyone.) And — probably as an unintended side effect of summarising — the panel does come off as an infomercial style sales pitch (“You can purchase cultural authenticity at very affordable rates! Don’t dare be caught without!”)

    Like Victor, I am also skeptical of the prime directive-like injunction against writing in the voice of other cultures.

    (Full disclosure: I’m posting while alt-tabbed away from my interactive fiction work-in-progess about a Gujarati ex-prostitute, while brainstorming ideas for the story about a gay Javanese muslim. But not even once did consider that I was writing ‘diverse’ ‘pocs’, or that I should pay someone to consult for me. And I don’t intend to start thinking of the protagonists as ‘diversity’, because that would reductive and more than little patronising.)

    • It was a discussion, not a panel. Khadeja led the talk, but everyone in the room was welcome to participate, and most people did. (All, maybe? I wasn’t taking notes on who participated, but it was a very lively group.)

      There were 20-30 people present, including indies, AAA developers, and at least one journalist. The person who originally suggested offering $150 was not an AAA developer. I was the one who pointed out that some indies can’t afford to pay people at all, which led to people pointing out how you can offer a percentage of sales, ask for credit, etc.

    • Also, to be super clear – the recommendation here is not “you shouldn’t write characters from other cultures.” That would be terrible.

      The recommendation here is “write characters from other cultures with care and respect, and don’t write stories about what it means to be part of that culture.”

      If the core of a story is (random example) the experience of falling in love, and it happens to be set in the Philippines, with Filipino characters, then anyone could write it. But out of respect, it’s probably a good idea to have someone with closer personal experience take a look to make sure you haven’t screwed up in some way that they would recognize and you wouldn’t.

      If the core of the story is about the experience of being Filipino, then you’re not the right person to tell that story. It should be told by someone who actually is Filipino (assuming here that you are not).

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